Column: Chris Chelios, Chicago’s prodigal son, had a fairy-tale ending (but Patrick Kane needn’t worry)

When the Chicago Blackhawks traded defenseman Chris Chelios to the Detroit Red Wings on March 23, 1999, it left him in no man’s land.

Hawks fans felt betrayed by the Evergreen Park native, even though he had no choice.

“I thought it was a mistake at the time,” Gary Suter, Chelios’ former defensive partner, told the Tribune. “I think it hurt him a lot because he gave a lot to the Blackhawks organization.”

Once in Detroit, Red Wings fans didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet either.

“When I got to Detroit, they already hated me. I mean hated,” Chelios told reporters Sunday after his No. 7 jersey retirement ceremony at the United Center. “That was a great rivalry, and the first couple years there, a lot of them didn’t accept me.

“And then Chicago absolutely hated me for going to Detroit. In all seriousness, I was thinking, ‘I can’t move back to Chicago, I can’t go to Detroit, where the heck am I gonna live?’”

Even though his heart remained in Chicago, Chelios put his all into the Red Wings, helping them win the Stanley Cup three years later in 2002.

Photos: Chicago Blackhawks retire Chris Chelios’ No. 7

“As time went on, I won another Stanley Cup in Detroit (in 2008) and all was forgiven there,” he said. “And years later the Hawks started winning their Cups, so all was forgotten there, too, and everybody is in a good mood.”

Chelios retired in 2010 and the Hawks welcomed him back into the fold in 2018.

“When (then-Chairman) Rocky (Wirtz) asked me to come back and be an ambassador, it was an easy decision to come back home,” he said. “Especially after my dad had passed, I wanted to get back and take care of my mom and take care of the family.

“I always wanted to come back to Chicago, and I thank my lucky stars it worked out the way it did.”

During his ceremony, Chelios joked to Patrick Kane, another beloved Hawk-turned-Red Wing, “That jersey looks kind of funny on you.”

Judging by Kane’s reception Sunday, his first game at the United Center in enemy colors, if Kane ever was a pariah, it was short-lived.

Sure, the Red Wings were pelted with “Detroit sucks!” chants, but they weren’t directed at Kane. And after his video tribute, he waved to fans as he took a lap, with their sustained applause inviting encores.

Perhaps it helped that Kane led the Hawks to three championships.

Or it could be that before signing with the Red Wings, Kane was traded to the New York Rangers, a more palatable destination for Hawks fans.

Or maybe today’s fans are more enlightened and understand the rebuilding Hawks no longer needed him, and Kane’s at the tail end of his career, so why begrudge him this last Cup chase?

“It’s been great,” Kane said about wearing that funny-looking Wings jersey. “I have nothing but positive feelings and emotions being here. Really enjoyed my time here. I think the group’s been great, the coaching staff, everyone just giving me the chance to come in here and fit in and find my game.

“Really, really happy I picked Detroit.”

Here are five more observations about Chelios after his number retirement ceremony.

1. Coach Chelios? Not likely.

During his post-ceremony news conference, Chelios was asked if he was looking to take on any new challenges.

His thoughts immediately turned to coaching.

“I missed that window of coaching because I played so long to the age of 48 that I felt obligated, not obligated, but I wanted to see my kids play their sports and pursue their college careers,” he said. All four of his children were Division I athletes. “So I made up for that and by the time I was offered the jobs for coaching, and I was offered plenty of them,” he felt it was too late.

“I just missed that window and I didn’t want to travel then. Once I enjoyed the kids, it was too late to go back. I thought about running for mayor, maybe.”

Someone pointed out that earlier in his address, he said he hated politics.

“I do. That’s why I’m never going to run.”

2. Bonding with the Bulls.

Not that Chelios’ ceremony lacked celebrity guests (Wayne Gretzky, Kid Rock, Cindy Crawford, Eddie Vedder and more), but the pre-ceremony buzz was that Michael Jordan was going to attend. He was a no-show.

“Of course it would have been really special to have MJ here,” Chelios said. “I saw him a couple weeks ago and we talked. It doesn’t matter. He’s here in spirit. I’m hanging in the rafters with his jersey.

“We spoke yesterday. Just something came up and we’ll celebrate on his boat next week.”

Later, Chelios strolled down memory lane, reminiscing about the ’90s Hawks hanging out with the ’90s Bulls.

“It just so happens that Michael went out a lot of the time, and Dennis (Rodman) went out all the time,” Chelios said, eliciting a few chuckles. “Scottie Pippen was part of that. Ron Harper was part of that. So we had a great relationship with the Bulls.

“We had some bars — Martini Ranch comes to mind — that’s where we really started meeting the Bulls.”

Early in the decade, Chelios said he and his teammates showed up at some Bulls practices.

“We’d actually scrimmage with them,” he said. “Now Michael was too smart, he didn’t play with us, but we had some crazy scrimmages with the Bulls before their games. And like I said, Rodman, he was a character and I loved it. There’s never a dull moment with him.”

Suter remembers those times.

“I had a son and Chelios had two sons, and they would be out on the court shooting baskets with Jordan when he was out there warming up several hours before a game,” he said. “I’ve actually got a pretty cool picture somewhere of my son and Chelios’ two kids with Michael Jordan on the court, shooting baskets.”

3. Chelios and Kane share a mutual admiration.

Chelios, who played 26 seasons, is often called the greatest American player in NHL history. His 1,651 games is a record for an American-born player.

They don’t call him the “Godfather of American hockey” for nothing.

Kane said Sunday morning, hours before Chelios’ big night: “Right now you can definitely make that argument that he’s probably the greatest American player of all time. I don’t think someone would look at you funny or challenge that.

“He’s had an unbelievable career and played a long time. His longevity is incredible. He won Stanley Cups, Norris Trophies, so, yeah, very fond of Cheli.”

Of course, the operative word is “right now.”

After needling Brent Seabrook for asking him to get Taylor Swift tickets for Seabrook’s wife and kids, Chelios said: “While we’re on the subject of great ones from that era, I’ve got to include (Kane). This guy will go down as the greatest American-born player. Kaner, Patrick Kane, unbelievable.”

4. Chelios’ superpower was being ‘an in-your-face guy.’

Suter, his longtime defensive partner, called him a “Swiss Army knife” who had a “warrior mentality.”

“He was an excellent defender,” Suter said. “He was a great penalty killer, yet he still had the offensive ability to play on the power play, to put up great numbers offensively. He was a competitor and leader, an in-your-face guy.

“So very rarely do you get someone that can do all that.”

Suter thought back to battles against the Red Wings when Chelios would target Steve Yzerman or Sergei Fedorov.

“He was real good at just being an agitator and going after the other team’s best players,” Suter said. “He could skate good enough to keep up with all of them. That was kind of his forte, getting under the skin of the best players on the other team.

“Ironically, he ends up playing with (those Red Wings players), but that’s just the way it is in the hockey world.”

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Asked what made Chelios stand out, Suter said his “anticipation” offensively or defensively.

“His skating ability allowed him to be aggressive, get right in people’s faces on the rush or the penalty kill,” he said.

Prompted with the same question, former teammate Dirk Graham said: “That’s an easy answer: his competitiveness. All great players, there’s a talent level, skill level and stuff, but his competitiveness was off the charts. Extremely competitive guy that bled into everything else — the way he played, how hard he played, his physicality, everything else.”

Suter said Chelios would speak his mind to players and coaches alike when it was called for.

Graham was both to Chelios. He played with Chelios for five seasons, from 1990-91 to 1994-95, and then was his coach in 1998-99 — but for only 59 games.

Graham was fired and never was hired as an NHL coach again.

“That was kind of a difficult situation coming from being a player … and then being a coach for them,” Graham said. “One of my biggest regrets or mistakes when I did coach was not leaning on Chris more than I did. … Certainly from my side, there was always a tremendous amount of respect for Chris and his game and how he carried himself.”

5. Grandfather clause.

Caley Chelios, an NBC Sports Chicago hockey analyst and Chris Chelios’ daughter, attended her dad’s ceremony along with her mother, three siblings and grandmother.

She’s also very pregnant with her third child, which provided fodder for her father.

“She might be the first one to have a baby at the United Center. She was due two days ago,” Chris joked.

Later, he expressed appreciation for her attendance, but he wasn’t quite done with his stand-up routine.

“I hope she goes into labor right after the party,” he said. “It was perfect. She willed that thing to stay in, wearing harnesses so it wouldn’t drop.

“She’s out of her mind. It’s an exciting time, for sure.”